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Formosa Mea
Tone Wik (soprano)
Johan Nicolai Mohn (recorder), Karolina Radziej (violin), Vegard Lund (lute), Christian Kjos (harpsichord, organ)
rec. October 2015, Jar Church, Norway DDD
Texts and translations included

Throughout history the Song of Songs, a book of love poetry from the Old Testament, has had a great attraction for composers. That was especially the case in the 17th century: the texts were almost tailor-made for the highly expressive style which was born in the early decades of the 17th century. The interest in these texts went hand in hand with the attention given to the Virgin Mary. The Song of Songs was given a spiritual interpretation by the church and the girl or the bride who figures in these poems was identified with Mary. The veneration of Mary has its roots in the early Middle Ages, but received a strong, new impetus in the 17th century as part of the Counter Reformation. This explains why composers not only wrote many pieces on texts from the Song of Songs, but also in honour of the Virgin Mary. Moreover, there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular, and as a result many pieces on texts from the Song of Songs or about Mary are not that different from secular love songs. The present disc attests to that.

Some of the main Italian composers of the 17th century are represented on this recording. A couple of pieces in the programme are also pretty well-known. That certainly is the case with O quam tu pulchra es by Alessandro Grandi. For some years Grandi was assistant to Claudio Monteverdi at San Marco in Venice, but it seems that their relationship was not the best, and that Monteverdi prevented his colleague from composing large-scale works for the liturgy. Grandi made a virtue of necessity and focused on the composition of sacred concertos for solo voices and basso continuo, sometimes with a few additional instruments. His pieces can be counted among the most expressive of the time, and O quam tu pulchra es is no exception. From this text the words are taken which are chosen as the title of this disc.

These words also appear in O dulcissima dilecta mea by Stefano Bernardi. He is one of the lesser-known names in the programme. From 1622 until his death he worked in Salzburg, which bears witness to the positive reception of the Italian style in Austria. The spiritual interpretation of this love poetry comes to the fore in the ‘Alleluia’ with which this piece ends. Another text from the Song of Songs is Nigra sum sed formosa. Monteverdi set it for solo voice and basso continuo and included it in his Vespers. Here we hear a setting for solo voice, violin and basso continuo by Tarquinio Merula.

As I wrote above, the bride from these poems was identified with the Virgin Mary. The disc opens with a piece in her honour, and it is telling that it is not in Latin, but in Italian. In fact, it is a love poem: “Mary, sweet Mary, a name so gentle that saying it enraptures the heart. A sacred and saintly name which inflames my heart with celestial love”. A piece like this connects the sacred with the secular, such as Torno il sereno zefiro by Sigismondo d'India, one of the pioneers of the stile nuovo. Its refrain says: “For me no spring will come”. More light-hearted is Biagio Marini's Invito all'allegrezza which is about “lovely, youthful April”, the nightingale and “playful chirrups”. It is fitting that the soprano is singing alongside the recorder.

Going back to the sacred: there is an obvious connection between Mary and pieces for Christmastide. O che nuovo stupor by Francesca Caccini - daughter of Giulio, the main promotor of the stile nuovo - is a piece which expresses jubilation about the birth of Christ; again the recorder joins the soprano. Monteverdi’s Exulta filia Sion is a setting of a mixture of biblical and liturgical texts; the latter are from the early Mass for Christmas morning. Bonifazio Graziani’s Gaudia Pastores urges the shepherds to rejoice and to go and see Jesus, and sing a lullaby for him. The piece ends with “No, no, no”. It is but a little step from Jesus’ birth to his passion and death. Girolamo Frescobaldi, almost exclusively known for his keyboard music, also wrote vocal pieces, such as A pi della Gran Croce: “At the foot of the Cross, where Jesus was languishing close to death, sighing, Magdalene, helpless, wept in torment”.

Lastly, Monteverdi's Exulta filia Sion is a piece in honour of a saint. The name is left open, which makes it suitable for any feast day in honour of a saint. It is a motetto in dialogo but as never two singers sing together it is reasonable to assume that the soloist is in dialogue with himself. In this performance I didn’t heard any suggestion of a dialogue. Even so, it is one of the better performances on this disc. Overall the performances are rather disappointing.

Tone Wik has a very beautiful voice which is perfectly suitable for this kind of repertoire. Technically her singing is flawless, and I would be happy if every singer would deliver such stylish performances. However, there is one major shortcoming: the performances are rather short on expression. The more light-hearted pieces and the Christmas items come off relatively well, but Frescobaldi's A pi della Gran Croce is very disappointing. The motets on texts from the Song of Songs lack any excitement and there is no hint of exaltation in the pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary. Dynamically the performances are too flat, there is hardly any messa di voce and the rhythms need to be taken with much more freedom, in a more declamatory style. In short, this repertoire needs a more speechlike and theatrical interpretation.

These issues make it hard to really commend this disc. That is especially regrettable as the music is of high quality and the programme includes several little-known items.

Johan van Veen

Francesca CACCINI (1587-c1641)
Maria, dolce Maria [03:12]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Jubilet tota civitas [04:31]
Stefano BERNARDI (1580-1638)
O dulcissima dilecta mea [03:12]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Canzon III [03:04]
Exulta filia Sion [05:17]
Alessandro PICCININI (1566-c1638)
Toccata IV [01:15]
A pi della Gran Croce [02:55]
Toccata X [04:25]
Francesca CACCINI
O che nuovo stupor [05:22]
Alessandro PICCININI
Toccata VIII [01:57]
Biagio MARINI (1597-1665)
Invito all'allegrezza [02:32]
Alessandro GRANDI (1575-1630)
O quam tu pulchra es [03:13]
Tarquinio MERULA (1595-1665)
Nigra sum sed formosa [04:00]
Partite sopra La Monica [04:06]
Sigismondo D'INDIA (1582-1629)
Torna il sereno Zefiro [04:00]
Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-c1651)
Preludio VI [00:37]
Bonifatio GRAZIANI (1604/05-1664)
Gaudia Pastores [06:06]



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